A senior official spoke of the unprecedented exodus from Russia in the late 2000s for the first time. Back in January, Accounts Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin cited the following figure: 1.25 million members of the economically active population have fled the country since 2008. And the exodus continues. While Stepashin predictably did not comment on the reasons involved, the current wave of emigration will undoubtedly be included in the list of postponed achievements from “Putin’s eight-year stability plan”. Yet it’s still unclear who is leaving and what exactly is pulling them away from here. Sociologists and the Federal State Statistics Service have kept silent.
In the twentieth century, Russia experienced several waves of emigration. In each case, people left the country for clear and easily explainable political or, more commonly, economic reasons. This is reflected in the names of these waves: “white emigration” (1917-1921), “sausage” (1970-1980) and “scientific” (1990s).
The paradox and uniqueness of the current wave is in its lack of any powerful or obvious political or economic preconditions pressuring Russians into emigration. Taking the question to Facebook, we didn’t expect an instantaneous response. But a flurry of replies came in the first few minutes.
People “dislike” it in Russia*. This is how Facebook users replied to our questions about what led to their emigration.
When surveying new Russian emigrants, we wanted to understand three simple things: 1) What prompts people to emigrate; 2) What are these “runaways” searching for abroad; 3) What kind of future do they want for themselves and their children.
Below are the stories of Russians who just recently changed their country of inhabitation. We received more than a hundred of them.
Alexander Haar, New York, United States, aged 25
Alexander is from a family of Russified Germans. The family had discussed the idea of a possible move beginning back during his childhood. Yet he wasn’t even thinking about emigration in the early 2000s. He writes that he could see “society’s unhealthy condition out of the corner of [his] eye, and the feeling intensified over time.” In autumn 2008, he was still a fifth-year college student when the economic crisis hit and he lost his job. Just before the start of 2009, he made the decision to leave after talking with a friend who had just returned from the United States. He borrowed money from his parents and waited for his interview at the embassy. He told his friends only a week before leaving. They all tried to talk him out of it.
“It may be a surprise, but I stayed the same after moving. There wasn’t much to change about myself. I am always prepared for any turn of events. I’ve lived apart from my parents since I was 17, making a living and paying for college. In Russia, I worked as a design engineer, repaired mobile phones, installed and set up satellite television and Internet systems; I worked in delivery. My official salary ranged from 6,000 to 25,000 roubles per month. In the United States I started out at around $1,000 and am now earning $1,500-$1,600 a month. I’m working as a manager at a mobile phone sales and repair store. I have to use equal amounts of both English and Russian. I speak English constantly at work and Russian at home and with friends.
I’ve applied for college here and will start studying again in mid-May. I’m thinking about revalidating my Russian diplomas in the future and looking for work at major commercial organisations.
As a person, I feel more comfortable here. Nobody, not even black people, whatever one may think of them, lays a finger on me here. Of course, I don’t hang around the rough neighbourhoods.
The police are always on my side here even though I only have student status. And I can always rely on them here, while back in Russia, when I lived in the dorms, I feared the police. I’ve forgotten how to be afraid of them now, and I don’t even know how it happened… So, it’s unlikely that I would be able to live in Russia again… It’s highly unlikely that there will ever be order there. Nobody truly wants it.
But I would have never left my country if the situation had at least been like it was in the early 2000s. At that time, everyone was hoping for something and planning things…
I describe Russia lovingly to my new acquaintances and friends, telling them how things really are: it truly is cold in winter, but no colder than in Canada; people drink and have a good time without thinking about tomorrow, which is why things are all going down the drain…
I don’t have any children yet, but I definitely will. I’ll tell them about Russia in the best light and as emotionally positive as possible. But I’ll never let them grow up there and see what it’s actually like”.
Andrei Ilyukhin, Brno, Czech Republic, engineer at a transnational IT corporation
Andrei began thinking about moving while still in college. When he was young, he very much wanted to get out and see the world, but then his desire to leave disappeared to some degree, what with all that was going on in the mid-2000s. But the desire returned once again in 2008 following a trip to the Czech Republic.
“There were only a few major grievances about life in Russia:
- housing problems, accommodation (why do such low-quality apartments, not to mention the surrounding infrastructure, cost so much, and why are mortgage payments so high that it takes one’s entire salary to cover them?);
- the absence of a rational medical system;
- the chaos at government agencies, ‘come between 9 and 11’, ‘out for lunch’, ‘you can’t mail it’, for any document you have to come personally…
When I visited the Czech Republic, I started questioning things: why is our transport system so idiotic, why are there so many lies on television?
The last straw was the 2008 economic crisis when I was laid off from work. It’s a good thing that my small business rescued me at that time and I had a safety net to keep me afloat. Most of my loved ones said “you’re deserting the motherland!”
It was difficult at first after arriving, especially socially, as I still wasn’t married at the time. I was cut off entirely from any social life. Speaking a foreign language has been another problem. But I was trying.
I had to rethink some of my everyday habits. For example, you have to say hello in the store. You have to save money on heat, which isn’t cheap, and many Czechs turn off their heaters at night, covering themselves with blankets and wearing pajamas. I was very surprised at first by the Czechs’ credulity: everything you say is considered true. There is nothing here like in Russia, where you hear the staple “bring a certificate that you’re not lying!”
There aren’t any supervisory agencies here, and nobody controls you. This can be an advantage or a disadvantage for Russian emigrants. It’s a plus that there’s no control and a drawback that ignorance can result in some sort of violation, and the fines and punishments here are strict.
The Czechs have a standard amount they pay for television and radio – 150 crowns per month. It’s a laughable amount, the equivalent to the cost of two lunches on the outskirts of Brno, and it’s impossible to monitor payments. Who wants to walk around to every apartment and check the receipts? But everyone pays… The transparency is spellbinding.
Here I want to settle down and have a family… I can breathe “more freely” here. There’s no oppressive burden of injustice, and there’s some faith in the government, that it will stand up for you and not lot some drunken policeman run you over in his car. I don’t feel like an outsider here”.
Anna Andrianova, Quito, Ecuador
In Moscow, Anna worked in the marketing department of a major Asian company. After reading some professional literature, she came to the conclusion that business could only truly be studied abroad. So she decided to leave and study abroad. She received a scholarship and studied in Texas for two years. After completing her studies in the United States, she was in no hurry to come back to Russia and wanted to live in other countries. She went to live with some friends in Ecuador so she could study Spanish and live in a new culture.
“I’ve been working at an international advertising agency in the capital, Quito, for almost two years now. My average salary before leaving in 2007 was about $1,500, the same as it is in Quito, but my quality of life in Ecuador is much better.
My colleagues often ask me to tell them about similarities and differences between Russia and their country. In Ecuador, for example, there’s a lot of talk about corruption, and there’s actually quite a bit of it here. ‘But compared to Russia, it’s child’s play,’ I reassure them. Nevertheless, the Ecuadorian president is very upset with journalists, who frequently report on the government or the president himself in a negative light. Sometimes, journalists are fined or fired. But, as I reassure the Ecuadorians, people are killed or crippled in Russia for the same thing.
Living in other countries, the most difficult thing was overcoming the purely Russian habit of trying to be like everyone else. Work a lot, but don’t stand out. Strive for money, and the more, the better… Dream about buying an apartment. Vacationing on the sea…
I would gladly return to Russia should I find a good job at a Western company or a Russian one with an open corporate culture that fits my priorities in life.”
Maria Gutman and Roman Gold, Israel, student and businessman
After finishing school, Roman Gold was simultaneously accepted to two universities, one in Jerusalem and one in Kiev. He selected the latter and he has no regrets about it, since he gained some valuable experience.
After graduating from Moscow State Law Academy, Maria thought about continuing her education, which could have been an additional bonus if she had built a career in Russia. A year ago, she and her fiancé, Roman, travelled to Israel for a ten-month training programme, during which she ‘warmed up’ to the idea of moving.
Maria: Our decision wasn’t influenced by some sort of negativity in Russia, rather the positive feeling we got when living in another country.
First, it’s a healthy society here. This can be seen with children – there aren’t any orphanages in Israel and all abandoned children find adoptive families instantly. As for nature – every Israeli schoolchild knows the geography and environment of his country like that of a decent tour guide. Finally, as for war prisoners – name any other country where the government is willing to free a thousand terrorists in exchange for a single 20-year-old corporal taken prisoner.
Second, the opportunity for personal fulfilment appeals to us… Israel is a country of start-ups, both in terms of spirit and the level of socio-economic support. It’s no secret that the highest concentration of start-ups on the planet is concentrated here (to be precise – one start-up per 1,844 residents). There are more Israeli companies quoted on the NASDAQ stock exchange than all European companies combined. Israel is innovating at the governmental and social level, distinguishing itself from the majority of European and former Soviet countries, where innovation has to be “grown in incubators” (no offence to Skolkovo).
After moving, we often heard from friends how we are “strong and took a big step,” although we feel that the ones who stayed in Russia right now, during these difficult times, are the truly strong ones. My income has declined a bit here (I was considered “middle-class” in Moscow), but this was entirely expected since my career in Israel is only beginning. I am going back to school.
Roman: Prior to moving, my social status was much higher than average. For the last three years, I worked as the editor-in-chief for a major IT journal. I wouldn’t say that I’ve had to temper my ambitions in Israel. On the contrary, it is here that I’ve been able to seriously work on a number of my own projects.
Our priorities today are to have a family, achieve a certain social status and find fulfilment professionally and personally. We had the same priorities in Russia, but we had to move to another country in order to fully realise.
Maria: There would have been no need to leave Russia if the political and economic situation in the country had at least been stable and there was no xenophobia. If the laws were respected ubiquitously, the government truly supported young families and there was a chance of buying housing…
Sasha Galakhova, Berlin, PR agency manager
Sasha believes she only had two options in Russia: play by the rules and stay there, or choose different rules, more honest and humane, and live in another country.
“The way things are done in Russia were really oppressing. In Russia, young people my age do not have a choice professionally: everyone I studied with at school and the institute went on to become managers. Everyone who became a manager wears the same clothes, listens to the same music. And this society is spawning… In Berlin, I have a German friend who graduated from college with excellent grades, a boy from a good family, and he was supposed to work for a bank and not have any worries for the rest of his life. But this guy is prepared to work three different jobs just so he doesn’t have to go to the office. And interestingly enough, his quality of life is fully commensurate with the average bourgeois. It’s freedom of choice! People can decide for themselves and find themselves without being afraid of stumbling.
Living in Berlin, I understand that after a few years of hard work and paying taxes, I will be able to afford a small apartment. Everyone knows that this wouldn’t even be an option in Moscow.”
Anna Laut, Montreal, Canada, 24, staffing agency manager
In 2009, Anna married a native of Cameroon and decided to emigrate. She filed her documents as a dependent. Her husband left three weeks after the wedding, while she had to wait another seven months. After receiving a visa in March 2010, she rushed off after him.
“At first, I didn’t even want to hear about it! It seemed like everything would work out on its own. Perhaps we would break up, for example, and never have to make that decision. But years passed, and we were still together… Then I began to think that we really didn’t have much of a choice and that we had to leave. I knew how girls who marry Africans live in Russia, how their children live and how uncomfortable they are here. I had felt all this myself. Leering on the streets, insults from strangers, fear for him and yourself when we’re together. The stories of friends who have been attacked, beaten or even crippled… The insurmountable bureaucratic system that made it impossible for him to obtain documents for a normal life (for example, entering post-graduate was the only way he could be registered in Moscow). I didn’t want such a life for myself, my husband and our children.
In Moscow, knowing French and English, I earned about 50,000 roubles. Here I make the rouble equivalent of about 65,000. Considering that I did not rent an apartment in Moscow, while here I do, there isn’t a huge difference money wise in the end. Honestly though, I am more concerned about the short vacation time here. I still can’t get used to the fact that Canadians only get two weeks holiday a year.
I’ll probably get used to it sooner or later. I’ve already changed a lot. Probably the most significant change is that I stopped being embarrassed about expressing my feelings and emotions. This is frowned upon in Russia. You ride the metro in silence, trying not to look at anyone, not to smile, not to apologise for pushing someone, and basically not making any contact with anyone. Here, whether you like it or not, you start to open up and have contact with strangers. There are fewer complexes, perhaps. I’m not saying that my husband and I feel like normal people here… The most difficult part has been coming to grips with the fact that we have started a new life and that we must make new relationships and acquaintances, and not wait around for our Moscow friends on Skype.
Now I can’t imagine summer without a bicycle. In Moscow, I was always afraid to hop on a bike and just ride around the streets. I’ve gotten used to the fact that there is always a lot of sunshine, even in winter. In Moscow, I didn’t notice it not being there, but if I ever return there to live, I definitely will.
I’ve developed the habit of being more patient. Bureaucracy flourishes here like everywhere else. I can’t say anything bad about the quality – I’ve been given everything I needed. But the waiting times everywhere (to obtain a driver’s licence, see a doctor, etc.) are so long that my patience runs out. I find that having to wait at least one year to receive a driver’s licence is something out of the ordinary.
I miss home from time to time, friends and loved ones. Sometimes I also get the strange desire to be somewhere on Pushkinskaya metro station during rush hour. There aren’t enough people, dynamism, rushing about and crowds.
Today I told a colleague that I very much regretted not getting a licence in Russia, that it would have been much faster and that I always could have paid for or bought a licence without taking any courses. She was deeply shocked.
I am confident that it’s better to have children and raise them here in Canada. I will try to make sure they know their roots. I don’t want them to be 100% Canadian.
Nikita Yershov, 24, Oslo, Norway, school teacher
Nikita is of Veps nationality. He started contemplating a move to Europe while still in grade school. He admits that he never felt at home in Russia. But it was only after travelling to the West during his first year at college that he understood “how infinitely neglected our country is”.
“I met my husband – yes, I’m gay – by chance on the Internet. He is Norwegian. After 2006, we started travelling to see each other, and then in 2008 we were officially married on Norway.
Today, I work just a little less than part-time, or 3 hours and 15 minutes a day, and I earn 68,000 roubles per month before taxes. This salary is significantly lower than the average level, but I’m planning on going back to school. I’m planning to become a nutritionist.
Our budget will fully depend on my husband. He works full-time at an office and earns a very reasonable salary for Norway, which is just over 200,000 roubles. He also works seven and a half hours per day from 15 September to 15 May and 7 hours (minus half an hour for lunch) the rest of the time (summer), and he has six weeks of holiday per year. We travel all the time. We have a joke here: What’s the difference between an employed person and an unemployed person? The employed person can afford to take holiday three times a year, while the unemployed person can only afford to go once.
After moving, I learned how to change my opinion and agree with people. I just feel very confident. I mostly speak Norwegian and English, and only Russian at home with by husband (he studied Russian).
Old age for Norwegians starts immediately after retirement at 67 (for men and women); there’s no shame in receiving an education any time before this age. Back in Russia, I couldn’t even get my priorities straight. I always had to rush somewhere, not knowing whether I would achieve anything or not. Here I know what I will achieve. I feel infinitely free here! In Russia, I felt like a slave.
And what does it mean to be a free person? You know, there aren’t any special schools in Norway, thus children with physical and psychological disabilities study together. We have a girl who is hard of hearing, so everyone else in the class uses headsets with microphones in order to give this girl a fuller life”.
Ekaterina Markova and her children, Alena and Alexei, London, UK
Judging from her story, Ekaterina is a woman with outstanding willpower. Having received an MBA, she was highly successful in Moscow. She held a great position at a big-time company. Her salary over the last two years was about 110,000 roubles per month. She was a single mother with two kids, and the previous twelve years of her life were very difficult – studies, work, children all non-stop. She exerted most of her efforts on her education and often to the detriment of her children, she admits.
“For several years of my life, my children would only see me for 20 minutes in the morning and on Sundays. I had already studied in Japan and America (I took a vacation at my own expense). And then I few years ago, I was planning to study again – this time for a year and a half in the UK. All of my friends decided I had lost my mind…
I went by myself initially, found an apartment and came for the kids a month later. For them, it was a strange language and a different culture. But they almost immediately said, ‘Mama, we don’t want to go back’. Even when things were very difficult and I couldn’t find work for several months, they would say, ‘Mama, it’s temporary, we’ll wait it out, but we don’t want to go back.’ My daughter worked as a babysitter on Saturdays and gave me everything she earned. My son saved money on lunches and bought groceries for the house from time to time.
The children study for free here, and the school gives them everything, all the way down to the notebooks. They have free transport and medical care. When they entered British school, they were provided with professional support for adaptation. My son, who is 14 now, was given extra English lessons every day for six months, while special teachers accompanied him to class initially and explained everything he didn’t grasp.
The results were entirely unexpected: my son, who was a mediocre student at our Moscow gymnasium, turned into the best pupil in the class in just a year, despite his having problems with his motor skills. He can’t write legibly at all. So much stress was expended at our gymnasium because of this, especially in the early grades. All these years, people stubbornly pointed out to me and my children that we weren’t worthy of studying at a gymnasium, that my child was lazy and inattentive… His merited teacher, the old Soviet kind, shook his notebooks in front of the class, disgusted with how sloppy his hand writing was. For seven years, I tried to stand up to my son’s teachers. Now I think it’s a shame that I was too foolish to realise that the problem wasn’t the teachers, but the system. It could all have been different. And now my son has learned to believe in his abilities, be happy about going to school and, most importantly, his desire to study has been reawakened. The English school system focuses on his strengths and doesn’t attack his weaknesses. For example, they suggested he write his English essay on the computer so that letters which might be difficult to decipher while being graded wouldn’t accidentally be considered a mistake solely because of his penmanship. This was their idea. They also added more math-classes to his schedule because they noticed that he is very talented in mathematics.
And this is just one of the reasons why I no longer want to return to Russia. My children and their prosperity is precisely what I have worked and studied so hard for. And now I see that they are better off here, in a society where you can live according to the rules and not be afraid.
I’m not putting England on a pedestal at all. But there is definitely a basic sense of security and predictability in life despite us being essentially virtual outsiders here. I never had this feeling in Russia, as sad as that is.
What’s more, one year after arriving in England, I met a man who I am going to marry. He gets along very well with my children and, despite the cultural differences, living together feels great. For the first time, my children know the feeling of being part of a full-fledged family and they seem to genuinely enjoy it (their own father has never been involved in their lives at all, yet he refuses to grant permission for them to be adopted by an Englishman).
I took my children away from the problems that haunted us in Russia. But now they clearly understand that their future depends entirely on their education and willpower. This is invaluable”.
So, here’s the image of a new emigrant based on Facebook: they are young, well-off Russians under 35 on average, top-notch specialists who don’t wish to build a career in the current system and don’t agree with its structure. Young couples make up a significant part of the new emigrants, including ones with children. They aren’t Muscovites with deep pockets who have replaced their downtown penthouses with mansions in central Kensington or Chelsea. It’s not the gilded youth sent to the West so they can’t see how their fathers earn their keep. They aren’t new dissidents fleeing a murderous regime. Some of them write that they faced pressure every day from the aggressive Russian class of scum and that they differ greatly from the majority of Russians ethnically, physically (the disabled) and even in terms of sexual orientation.
Our protagonists are far removed from big money and politics.
You can make your own conclusions from their stories. They have been very honest with you. It seems to us that they provided rather articulate answers to our questions on the reasons, goals and prospects of their decisions. Here’s what we have come up with:
The main thing the young Russian middle class is escaping in Russia is uncertainty, both financial and social. The absence of transparent, clear rules that society adheres to. Besides fear for one’s own personal safety and concern for loved ones, there is obvious uncertainty about the future. There are limitations to one’s career growth, plus life is inconvenient.
Education. Professional realisation and growth. Russian emigrants usually very quickly work their way up to a Western middle class standing (unlike previous waves of emigrants, who often had poor command of the language in their new country). Once they establish themselves as middle class, young emigrants begin thinking about having families and lose the motivation for returning to Russia.
Just like in Russia, family and everyday issues dominate the thoughts of these “runaways”. When talking about the future, they often speak about purchasing a home (or expanding their existing accommodations), having children and travelling. But in almost every story, the same words are inevitably repeated: “It’s easier to breathe here”. In describing their plans, yesterday’s compatriots sound extremely confident.
* “Like” and “dislike”. These extremely basic memes, invented by Mark Zuckerberg as criteria for user preferences and choices in the transparent and boundless Facebook network, have become relevant for real life as well. Users “like” the protagonist/event/company/Navalny/etc., raising their trust rating and making them more important in the community. And the opposite occurs too – deprived of trust, the “disliked” can slip into total obscurity. Users don’t have to wait, decide for or against, and then explain their choice.